Wednesday, July 24, 2013

Quantum Physics and Problem Solving

I have always been fascinated with the double slit experiment, one of the fascinating elements of quantum physics where an electron acts as a particle or a wave depending on whether it is being observed or not.

For those of you not familiar with this principle, the following video explains it nicely.

Many people in the business of solving problems would do well to understand the double slit experiment.

Oftentimes when someone is asked to solve a problem, the necessity to observe the problem actually alters the problem or the factors contributing to it.  When people are being observed, they may accidentally or purposefully change their behavior to please the observer or to hide something from the observer. 

The observer in turn may intentionally or accidentally offer information that enlightens or discourages the observed, also changing their behavior and perhaps causing an accidental solution (unlikely), the hiding of the original problem or the creation of a new one.

Add as well the notion that for human beings, unless we rely on appropriate data obtained before the process of observing the problem began, our previous experiences and emotions may taint our view on what we are observing.  This may cause us to possibly see the wrong problem, the wrong solution or not be aware that our participation may have altered the problem.

This of course creates an additional recursive dilemma – it is not always easy to gather data created before observation begins. :-)

The fact is that once the observer begins to participate in the problem solving exercise, they become part of the observed system, thereby influencing it.  This  participation influences the current direction of the observed system before any recommendations can be made to solve the original problem, potentially creating a moving target in relation to problem definition / solution.

And if we continue to attempt to solve the problem without the use of appropriate data, we will likely make choices based on what we already know and will therefore likely get the result we know (which may not be right).

Meanwhile the original (or a new) problem remains, buried in obfuscation, theory and a lot of activity but not the productivity necessary to solve the problem. 

Finding the right data – difficult albeit essential

Selecting the right data to analyze, knowing how, where, when and why to obtain it, with minimal impact on the observed and accepting the same limitations of human behavior to avoid selecting “the data we know” isn’t easy.

In fact, it’s the holy grail of problem solving.

And while it is difficult and complex to identify and select the right data, doing so produces a more powerful solution than to rush into immersing one’s self into the problem, redefining it by the mere insertion of one’s self into the system being observed.

Knowing how to do use  the right data, the right way and at the right time will make the difference between solving the original problem or solving (or even creating) a different one.  And if the new problem is the one that gets solved, there’s a high likelihood that the original problem remains in the same form or a different one when the observer leaves, inviting the problem solving process to repeat itself ad infinitum.

Do you know how to identify and use appropriate data in an appropriate way when solving problems?

Are you sure?

How do you know this to be the case if the system you are observing is changing merely because you are observing it? :-)

In service and servanthood,



I had a humorous incident about an hour after this blog was released that reminded me of the difference between using facts and using “what we know”.

Exiting a bathroom in a coffee shop, I was confronted by an angry woman who demanded to know “What the hell I was doing in the lady’s room”.

I pointed to the sign by the door that indicated that the bathroom was for men and women to which which she replied “The sign is wrong.  Everyone knows that the bathroom on the left side is the lady’s room”.

I replied that she could have used the bathroom opposite which appeared to be vacant and which also had a sign indicating that the bathroom was for men and women.

She pushed past me with a harrumph, bringing this Confucius-like thought to mind:
Always strive to leverage the data right in front of you lest what you know leave you in a pi$$y or crappy mood.
Sorry – I couldn’t resist. :-)


  1. At least for the way my mind framed what you were saying …

    What you bring out is why I say that the “current system” should NEVER be looked at when defining requirements. It is also why I tell the business that I don’t want to look at their processes (how they organization themselves to get the work done) but rather want to understand the essence of what they need to do as a business.

    If I understand what they need to do, rather than how they do it, then I can actually provide insight in better more streamlined ways to get there … and throw away the chaff that has accumulated over decades of manager’s introducing new reports, ideas, methods.

    This in essence removes the frailty of the observer problem you identify … I think.

    Once I know what they need to do and can formulate a way to do it, I can then evaluate the ‘current system’ to determine if it makes sense at all to that end. I can then draft a strategy to get them from where they are to where they need to be.

    I guess one can either try to fix the observer problem (which is in itself an observer problem), or see it as irrelevant to the understanding of a problem.

    This perspective I have comes from having worked on over 200 projects and many methodologies. There is nothing simpler, for example, than a G/L system, yet the G/L systems out there are incredibly complex and convoluted. They get that way when people fail to grasp what G/L is in essence. (Debit, Credit, Transfer of cash amongst accounts with the odd thing thrown in like currency, budget vs actual vs proforma, etc.)

    Bruce L.

    1. Hi Bruce,

      Thank you for your comments - I really like your perspective. Too many people get TOO caught up in what IS and end up down a rabbit hole of minutiae, getting lost in what is and never getting to what needs to be done.

      Your approach provides clarity while not forgetting that once the ultimate destination has been determined, one still needs to figure out the present state in order to get from here to there.

      Create a great day!